Sunjeev Sahota’s first novel received rave reviews and won him the accolade of Granta’s Best Young Novelist for 2013.The cover of this new novel carries a recommendation from Salman Rushdie that this is the “real thing… and all you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”.
I must confess I found it almost impossible to follow the great man’s advice for the first 100 or so pages and not surrender to the urge to abandon the novel. But it was worth persevering for long before the end Sahota proves a wonderfully evocative storyteller, taking us into the heart of the world of illegal migration and how it shapes lives.
The story centres round three young Indian migrants, Tarlochan, Randeep and Avtar, and their interaction with Narinder, the British born daughter of an earlier generation of Indian migrants. Avtar and Randeep, whose families in Amritsar know each other, arrive together. But while their lives show the impact of modern, aspirational India, society has not changed enough for Avtar to tell Randeep that he is the lover of his older sister. With their families on hard times they decide to migrate to Britain to look for work, but in order to gain entry they have to pretend they are not: Avtar posing as a student and Randeep on a “visa marriage” to Narinder. Tarlochan takes the more classic illegal immigrant route of arriving on a fake passport in a torturous journey via Russia and Paris.
Sahota’s narrative has some graphic scenes of immigrants seeking work, prepared to do almost anything, in Avtar’s case even go down sewers, and how little they have to do with the host community. Indeed there is hardly an English character in the book except for Michael, who got to know Randeep when he worked in an Amritsar call centre and is surprised when he turns up in Doncaster expecting to stay with him.
The novel truly comes to life when it turns to Tarlochan and Narinder, and the story of how their lives become intertwined. In the process Sahota throws a piercing light on Indian society, both in India and Britain. Tarlochan, known as Tochi, a former rickshaw driver, has left India after his family have been brutally murdered by higher caste Hindus for being Chamars, the caste Hindu society has always treated as sub-human. He cannot bring himself to relive the horror of his family’s death and soon discovers that the downtrodden of Indian society carry their awful baggage with them, even when they move to England.
Just as fascinating is Narinder, whose upbringing in Croydon has made her a devout Sikh and whose decision to have a fake marriage with Randeep, so he can live in England, is prompted by higher religious ideas of doing good for humanity. It is only when she meets Tochi and falls in love that she begins to question her faith.
The epilogue, which takes the story 10 years forward, leaves many questions unanswered and reads less well. Rushdie may have overdone the praise about the power of this novel, but there is no denying that Sahota has painted a picture of modern immigration that reads like the real thing.